While less exorbitant than previous Summer Games, many question why the working class suburb has to depend on it in order to receive critical infrastructure investments. Some are still hoping to stop the mega-event from happening.
The 1900 Olympic Games were the brainchild of Pierre de Coubertain, a Parisian and founder of the International Olympic Committee. Held in tandem with the World’s Fair that same year, it brought Paris new massive infrastructure additions, including monuments and buildings that are now architectural treasures such as the Grand and Petit Palais.
Spanning from May to October with no opening or closing ceremonies, the Games only slightly resembled the international spectacle we know today. One similarity: No lack of criticism. “The whole series of sports produced nothing but muddles, bad arrangements, bad management, bad prizes, and any amount of ill-feeling amongst the various nationalities engaged,” lamented The Field, a British sports publication at the time. Disorganization was rampant. Some events featured teams made up of competitors of different nationalities or were granted Olympic status so late that participating athletes didn’t even know they had competed in an official event.
The 2024 Paris Olympics will mark 100 years since the last time the city hosted the games. (The 1924 summer games, fortunately, were a considerably more organized affair than the first time around.) When the IOC formally announced the decision last September to give the games to Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron called it a “victory for France,” and IOC president Thomas Bach called it a “win-win” situation. In reality, several cities had already withdrawn their bids due to concerns regarding project costs and environmental impact.
The Paris bid for 2024 includes promises of inclusiveness; that is, assurance that the impact of the Games will extend beyond city limits and into surrounding communities, notably that of Saint-Denis, a suburb just north of the capital. Its mayor, Laurent Russier, describes the games as a “wonderful event,” and an appropriately intercultural gathering for a town that counts among its population some 130 nationalities. As Russier told Le Parisien in September, the Games are also “an opportunity to end the bad image that is often stuck to us.”
The reputation of Saint-Denis suffered following the police siege that took place there in the days after the 2015 terrorist attacks when several of the people instrumental in the attacks were found hiding out in a derelict apartment building. International media descended on Saint-Denis during and after the raids and it was one of the eight zones in or around Paris infamously labeled a “no-go zone” by Fox News.
In reality, it’s a multicultural, economically challenged suburb, home to many nationalities and languages and popular among families and artists from Paris looking for more space for less money. The mayor himself ended up in Saint-Denis this way, arriving in 1997 in search of affordable rent before falling in love with the area and staying. He proudly described it an interview with Le Parisien last year as a welcoming, working class commune that’s “more like Brooklyn than Molenbeek,” a reference to the Brussels neighborhood that gained a reputation as a Jihadist launchpad after the November 2015 attacks.
Traditionally an industrial town, Saint-Denis suffered significantly during the economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s. It gained international notoriety in the 1990s and saw some economic growth in conjunction with the construction of the Stade de France, built for the 1998 FIFA World Cup. The stadium brought with it modernization, better public transportation, and new development. But the town’s unemployment level still remains high, at 23 percent. The larger department (the French equivalent of a county) of Seine-Saint-Denis remains the poorest in France.
A central element of the Paris bid for the 2024 Olympics is the idea that the games will benefit not just the city but also its working class suburbs. The proposed revitalization project of Saint-Denis includes an Olympic village as well as a sprawling aquatic complex for the games. The official Olympic dossier promises new investments, jobs, housing, and an Olympic Village that will “complement and amplify existing initiatives to bridge the education, health and wealth gaps between central Paris and some of its suburbs.” Transportation improvements fall under the existing Grand Paris Express transit plan, which includes building 125 miles of new rail lines and 68 new stations by 2030. As for housing, the Olympic village will be converted into 3,500 residential units following the Games.
If the 1900 games were marked by the grandeur of a city illuminated by electric light, the 2024 games are being used to highlight the city’s ambitious Grand Paris project, an initiative started under then-president Nicolas Sarkozy. Grand Paris sets out to solidify the region’s international status through improved transit, clustered concentrations of urban development, and an emphasis on sustainability. The Olympic dossier assures “all of those living in Seine-Saint-Denis and other similar development areas will see their lives improved as they city as a whole works towards a more inclusive future.”
Paris has submitted several failed bids for the Olympics in recent decades, including for the 1992, 2008, and 2012 Games. As part of their revamped bid for 2024, Paris promised games that would be greener, more affordable, and beneficial both to Paris and to Saint-Denis. The 2024 bid also emphasizes that the Games will largely use existing facilities to host the events in Saint-Denis, avoiding a trail of abandoned venues as seen in Athens and Beijing.
Yet the 2024 games and the larger Grand Paris project are not being met with unanimous enthusiasm. In September 2016, a group of concerned citizens formed “Non aux JO 2024 à Paris,” (“No to the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris”). The group declares that the Games merely accelerate Grand Paris, which they see as “anti-democratic and anti-ecological,” while privatizing public space and embezzling public budgets. The group’s main problem with the Games is that the citizens of Paris and Saint-Denis were never given the chance to vote via referendum; they also cite oppressive sponsorship rules and security that come with any Olympic Games.
Frederic Viale, a member of the collective, says that among the list of grievances the most important is the question of democracy. “The population wasn’t consulted in any way on this question [of the Olympics] and this is absolutely scandalous. Other projects of this magnitude and with this impact would require the public to be consulted,” he says. “We aren’t only denouncing the games but the whole way the system is functioning.”
Gentrification and the impact on working class neighborhoods are also concerns cited by the collective, particularly in Saint-Denis. “This is one of the major problems of the Olympic Games. A large portion of the events will take place in Saint-Denis, new transportation infrastructure will be built, and of course then real estate speculation starts to occur. This has a huge impact on the local population, which will be pushed out,” says Viale.
For Saint-Denis, one of the biggest transportation projects planned as part of the Grand Paris construction is a gargantuan new train station. Gare Pleyel, designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, will be the area’s equivalent of Châtelet les Halles and is scheduled for completion in 2023. According to Benoit Quessard, director of the Saint-Denis-Pleyel project, the new train station will bring infrastructure and commerce to the area while capitalizing on existing attractions nearby.
In early 2017, the opposition group—composed of some 100 citizens from in and around Paris—launched an online petition protesting the games and asking for a referendum. At the time of publication, their petition had 31,721 signatures.
“Even if the decision has been made, we’re going to keep going,” says Viale, emphasizing that the group will continue their efforts to get the Games canceled. He cites the 1976 Winter Olympics as a source of inspiration: In 1970 the IOC awarded the games to Denver but in 1974 the city backed out of the deal, citing environmental concerns and a lack of available funding. The 1976 games were held, instead, in Innsbruck, Austria.
While French officials including Mayor Russier have been largely positive in their support for the games, there have been some political opponents and the French press reports mixed responses from residents of Saint-Denis, some of whom are optimistic about new infrastructure in the area while others say the government should fix existing problems before embarking on new projects.
Danielle Simonnet, coordinator of the Parti de Gauche, the leftist party tied to former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is skeptical about any beneficial impact the games will actually have on residents of Saint-Denis. Earlier this year on French radio she said of the planned aquatic center, “With only one Olympic swimming pool, we could have done more than a dozen pools in the cities and neighborhoods... that correspond to the needs of the school population and the population as a whole.” Eric Coquerel, a deputy representing Seine-Saint-Denis and a coordinator for the Parti de Gauche, laments the more general neglect of his constituency, telling the AFP in September, “It's tough when we hear that we have to win the Olympics in order to get the roads resurfaced, get electricity cables buried and get approval for building eco-neighborhoods.”
Earlier this month, the French Minister of Sports, Laura Fessel, took the official step of presenting the Olympic Law to the French Council of Ministers—a document outlining commercial activity and security measures set up for the games. Fessel emphasized that “ethics, integrity, and transparency” are of utmost importance. Already, however, the French delegation who traveled to Peru for the formal announcement of the 2024 games has come under fire for the exorbitant price of their trip. According to French investigative site Mediapart, the trip—complete with luxury restaurants, five-star hotels, and a specially chartered Boeing airplane—cost €1.5 million and was paid for in part by public funds.
Despite opposition, it seems that Saint-Denis will continue to build its international reputation as a host city of major sporting events. In mid-November came the announcement that France will also host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. The final will, unsurprisingly, be held at Stade de France.